Threats to Civil Society in the U.S. from Government Restrictions on Nonprofits

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July 16, 2009
Kay Guinane

July 16, 2009  Last Wednesday I attended a workshop at the InterAction annual conference where four speakers addressed threats to civil society resulting from government restrictions that limit formation and operation of civil society organizations. The U.S. is among the countries listed where civil society is having such problems. 

Ellen Willmott, Associate Vice President and Deputy General Counsel for Save the Children, presented a compelling presentation focused on restrictions in the U.S. The big picture shows nonprofit space being squeezed by restrictions on speech on one side (including USAID rules, the State Department's "no contact" policy in Gaza) and restrictions on operations on the other (including counterterrorism laws and policies). 


Willmott said the net result of these restrictions is "politicization of foreign aid and increasing restrictions on the freedoms of speech and association tied to US government funding." Some of the results are:

  • Increased violence toward international staff of US NGOs
  • Exclusion of partners and beneficiaries from US foreign assistance programs
  • Negative perceptions of US NGOs
  • Loss of constitutional protections for US NGOs and their staff

Willmott's handout is available here. It provides an extremely useful, detailed and easy to read summary of restrictions on speech and operations and activities. It concludes with recommendations for solutions, noting that "Addressing the tension between prohibitions and requirements and the humanitarian imperative is an ongoing campaign."